How can 1000 days set our children up for success?

By June Manala

In the first 1000 days of life, the foundational building blocks of a child’s brain is laid down, as they learn how to love or relate, to feel and be comforted and to be resilient - all through caregiving experiences, writes educational psychologist June Manala.

What are the first 1000 days?

Driven by advances in technology, the last few decades have seen a vast body of knowledge in brain sciences research and early parent-infant relationships (attachment) that can help us minimise things going wrong. One profound discovery has been the importance of the first 1000 days of human life beginning at conception and ending around the baby’s second birthday.  This is regarded as a critical period in human development, during which at birth the infant’s brain has billions of cells needing to be connected through certain types of experiences. These experiences include soothing overwhelming feelings through the caregiving relationship to enable rich connections, in the social brain or high brain. It might be helpful to think of the brain as having three interrelated parts with the top brain being the one that is underdeveloped at birth waiting for caregivers “to grow it”, as it were.  With this knowledge we have an opportunity to raise children who feel safe and trusting in themselves and towards the world rather than being left as fearful, angry, and violent, experiencing the world as unsafe. To achieve this, we need to know how caregiving relationships promote not only physical growth, but brain growth, learning how to relate to other human beings and from life and school, learning how to feel and name emotions, to feel calm. 

Many African cultures have special sensitive periods that might not be 1000 days, but offer an intentional, physical, and emotional supportive stance towards the pregnant woman during and after delivery. The later period is referred to as Botswetsi-Ubudlezane in the Sotho and Nguni cultures, for example. 

What is attachment?

More than six decades ago John Bowlby, the founder of attachment theory, (see Bowlby Centre) used the term attachment to mean a mutual affectionate mother-infant relationship in which the infant’s needs are met through closeness to their mother. Attachment is as natural as breathing. (Note that the role of ‘mother’ in modern parenting encompasses different primary caregivers). Bowlby said infants experience profound distress (in brain language flight-flight or danger-threat mode) on separation from their mothers and will protest separation (mostly through crying). The feeling of safety is restored on reuniting with the mother if the infant feels comforted or safe again. Prolonged separation, and babies left to cry for long periods of time without comfort, can lead to loss related despair. Also referred to as attachment rupture or trauma, this can lead to lasting negative impact on child development path and outcomes. Neuroscience tells us just how bad this is, not only for brain development, impacted by stress hormones, and if distress, it can prevent much needed brain cell connection mentioned earlier. Emotionally, the infant’s sense safety (security) could be compromised and affect the child’s sense of safety in the world. 

To feel both internal and external safety or security, the following natural needs must be met.  Babies need help when they experience big feelings, as they cannot do this by themselves. They need to be protected. 

Infant social skills in aid of building secure attachment

Babies have social skills from the moment they are born. Babies enjoy being looked at and being held close to the body. They enjoy eye contact with their mother-caregiver and later learn to see is the mirror through which they will come to know themselves. They look around (explore or curious) when feeling safe, they enjoy play, and being delighted in for just who they are, to be watched over when they are curious and to be listened to. They can hear and see; they have emotions, they can engage in mini conversations, they can maintain an unwavering interest in faces rather than objects If we take advantage of the babies' social skills, it is likely we engage more with babies and create a lovely parent-infant bond. 

Signals and attempts to interpret meaning of signals

In the first few days when mother and baby get to know each other, mum must guess or work out what the baby is saying to her. For example, crying, which happens most frequently at this stage, signals distress. It is the baby’s way of saying ‘make me feel safe again’. Comforting babies takes many forms but is more than feeding or changing whenever the baby cries. It requires being patient with oneself, reflecting on what could be the matter, and responding accordingly, learning about what works for the baby to calm. This, I am aware, is hard work as all parenting is hard work.

There is something about the voice that conveys empathy and soothing. This could also be through humming softly or rhythmic movement. If this works, the infant comes to learn that those sounds, movement are comforting and feel safe.

Infants show what they need from us-look, listen, and imagine what they could be communicating

Recognising that if we look and listen carefully, babies will show us what they need. For example, if the baby does not soothe when being given the breast or bottle, it might mean baby does not want to be fed. One way to test if the baby wants a feed or rooting is to stroke the side of the mouth. Force feeding can be distressful. Babies love to be talked to, perhaps mum can calmly and slowly voice out, “I see you do not want to milk now”. Pause for a while and ask if “you are cross because mummy does not know what you want”. Sometimes the cry might mean they are tired. Some parents naturally find it easy to speak with babies like this but for others this might not make sense. 

Let the baby take an emotional break

Babies get quickly overwhelmed and swing from one state of mind to the next. We must allow them to take a break when they look away. This is an example of khokha-moya, taking a short emotional recharge break. We can either maintain a quiet presence or name what is happening for the baby by saying: “I see you are taking a break” (Pause) “I will wait for you”. 

Since parenting is not perfect, mothers and caregivers will not always be able to get everything right and that is okay. There will be other moments to repair what went wrong and that is good enough.

What happens when attachment needs are not met?

Not all mother (caregiver)-baby relationships can meet the attachment needs mentioned. Unexpected difficulties during pregnancy, delivery and post-natal circumstances can affect the quality of mother-baby bond. Often the baby imagined in the womb is not the same as the real baby when born, as at birth babies is unique. If attachment needs of the infant are mostly not understood or are not met, this makes the infant feel unsafe and unprotected due to emotional overwhelm. Unfortunately, mother and baby can then be locked into a painful pattern of being together. Seeking help is recommended, whereby the parent-infant the relationship intervention rather than either parents or infant. 

Some difficulties arise from the caregivers’ own, often long forgotten memory of early-infancy-big-feelings-overwhelm intruding into the current relationship as if mum is, once more, the helpless infant who could not be consoled. It could then be hard to separate parent’s own from the infant’s distress. So, hearing and receiving her baby’s crying as signal for help might be difficult.

Furthermore, it is not unusual for mothers to feel as if the distressed baby is rejecting or targeting them. In an environment that is “big-feelings-loaded”, it may be hard for moms to find their calm. The presence of containing other such as the baby’s grandparents might act as a-catch-all-container for difficult emotions for both mother and baby might go a long way in forming happy parent-infant relationships. In extended family setups there are potentially many who can assist. Due to urbanisation and economic reasons, many nannies and domestic workers who themselves may have left their own infants in the care of grandmothers, provide much needed paid caregiving and, in so doing may have repaired many attachment ruptures at a cost.

Secure relationships may be the prophylaxis for learning, physical, emotional, and mental health throughout their life. Let us strive to create homes and societies that raise resilient, compassionate, loving citizens in this generation where the Covid-19 pandemic has inflicted so much trauma and loss.

June Manala is an educational psychologist with a long history of working with parents, families, and play therapy.